An apex to remember.
I remember a few months ago I was asked by a friend to recommend a racing simulator on PC. It got me thinking, and I soon realized that while there are many simulators to choose from on the platform, none have ever had the budget and development time allocated to make them look and feel as good as a fan of racing would hope. Although the wait for Project CARS has been arduous, it's finally here, and I'm glad to say that it not only delivers on its promise of bringing a AAA simulator to PC, but also to PS4 and Xbox One.
Racing in Project CARS is a success on many fronts, most important of which is that its physics model is well-engineered. The high torque of much of the game's car roster, which isn't very large with only 65 choices, makes them a real handful but also exciting to tame. Learning how to put power to the ground without losing traction when facing the game's admirable A.I. cast is a joy to experience.
The A.I. makes some occasional errors in judgment, but most of the time is a great opponent that not only knows how to pass an opponent, but is respectful of positioning. Several assist options as well as a highly adjustable A.I. difficulty allow you to tailor the experience to your skill level, so if you find yourself flying off the track and wishing there were a rewind option, the game does make an effort to provide scaling. Its voiced tutorials are helpful, too.
The Career mode strays from the conventions of modern racers. Instead of having you compete in non-linear events with a variety of cars, it allows you to select from one of over 12 racing formats, join a team, and then participate in a full season that mimics Le Mans, FIA, and other prestigious European racing events. It ends up feeling a lot more like a My Career mode in Madden or NBA 2K where you assume an identity and are compelled to win races for notoriety and trophies. As ambitious as it is, its achievement is more about how it's able to replicate the real world than it is about enjoyability.
Career mode suffers from some issues that prevent it from being the long-lived experience it aspires to be, most notable of which is its redundancy. Between practice, qualifiers, and racing events, you'll spend long periods of time racing in the same car, only broken up by the occasional special event where you're given a different car to compete with. The mode fails to provide meaningful progression. You won't earn new cars, money, or anything of the sort. Instead, you'll be able to read fictional e-mails and Twitter messages that commend you on your victories, or scorn you for your mishappenings. If you're good enough, then you'll be allowed to see a gold trophy hover around for a few seconds at the end of a winning season. Project CARS' impressively large list of tracks does come to the rescue to some degree, as you'll rarely find yourself racing on the same track twice in a single season.
Thankfully, you aren't stuck relying on the Career mode to experience the game. Solo play and Online play both offer an incredible amount of options for defining how you want to play, going as far as to let you choose the time of day to race, the weather patterns, and how many A.I. you would like present. Career mode might have been where Slightly Mad Studios was hoping players would spend a great deal of their time, but it's the sandbox nature of the other modes that will win the hearts of most. Cruising on California Highway or Nürburgring Nordschleife with a wealth of user-defined conditions is the highlight of the show.
The PC version of Project CARS is a new benchmark that all car enthusiasts should experience. On High and Ultra settings the game looks absolutely phenomenal, only held back by inconsistencies in the environment. Its day/night cycle is the best in racing. You can see clouds soar through the sky casting shadows on the ground, and blocking the sun's blinding rays. The weather system has varying levels of intensity, from light drizzles to thunderstorms. Water on the ground puts the game's extraordinary reflection effects on display. It really is a sight to behold.
Project CARS' outstanding presentation goes beyond just its visuals, its audio and menu design are great, too. Each car sounds authentic depending on its setup, whether it be the twin turbo V8 hybrid of the McLaren P1, or the 6.0 litre V12 engine of the Aston Martin Vantage GT3. There are a lot of well-implemented subtleties too. For example, the sound of rain hitting the tarmac, the squeal of brakes as they're pushed to their limit, and the creaking of body panels under intense G-forces. On the soundtrack front, the main menu has some inspiring tracks, but there is no in-race music which can lend itself to boredom during endurance races. You may want to boot up Spotify or Pandora while you play.
There are some minor nuances in Project CARS that impact the quality of life. For one, you can't tweak your settings once in a race, whether it be audio or basic gameplay options. Selecting paint jobs is wonky as you have to head into your garage and specify which paint style you prefer for each individual car instead of being able to do so directly from the car list. If you play on the PC version, you'll find that many UI elements can't be selected with the controller, forcing you to toggle between controller and K&M. Lastly, the menus in general can be unintuitive.
Project CARS is an outstanding racing simulator that only falters in content design. It welds a true-to-life physics model with AAA-quality presentation to produce the new go-to racing simulator for car enthusiasts. Unlike Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, it is much more concerned with simulation than fun, and as a result falls short of being exciting at times, especially when it comes to its Career mode. What it lacks in consistent delivery of fun it makes up for with a tremendous amount of attention to detail. For a game made by an independent studio paid for by crowd-funding, it sure looks and feels top-class. Those who funded the game should be proud of themselves, and so should the team members who crafted it.